Once, he was headed for certain business failure, but now Damien Boehem has shaken up the Australian franchise industry. This multi-millionaire business strategist believes in sharing the love. His aim now, to clean up around the world. So, is he a game changer? Let’s find out. I’m Gemma Acton. Welcome to Game Changers.
Damien, welcome to Game Changers. Let’s talk about Urban Clean and about how you got there. The journey a great success now, but that didn’t happen overnight. You did have a failed venture beforehand. Talk to us about how that led you to where you are today.
Damien: So, I was in property development. I’d worked for a property developer and then I branched off onto my own and was doing small unit townhouse and unit developments around inner city Brisbane. This was just before the Brisbane floods. The rain didn’t stop in Brisbane for like six months, seven months. It was raining constantly. At the time, I was buying blocks of land, developing units, and I was living project to project. I would finish a block of units, sell it down, grab some income for myself, and then put the rest of the money into the next project. Some of these I did on my own, and some I did with partners. I had one partner in particular, they were with two of my development sites, and they were builders. Their business started suffering because of the delays with the weather, and eventually they ended up in receivership.
That was really what got me thinking about having another business that could actually give me some recurring income, some revenue. Commercial cleaning just popped up all the time as this great business where you could win cleaning contracts. If you knew how to put cleaning teams together and service the client well; theoretically, you’d be able to keep that client forever. So I just needed to know how to win commercial cleaning contracts and how to staff it out, and then I wouldn’t be in the mess that I was in. Because in the end, I had to sell everything and I almost went broke, almost lost my house. I had to get a job knocking on doors for a roof restoration company. So this is a big change for me from living the life of a developer, which can be a little bit flashy and showy and now I was sort of down and out knocking on doors, setting appointments for people with broken roofs.
Gemma: So you can’t control certain things like the weather, but you can control other things, like how regular your income is. I think you had a family at this point when things started to go wrong. So that must have been another reason to really look for a more secure business?
Damien: Yeah, definitely. Our third kid was on the way, so it was very stressful time for my wife in particular. I think sometimes as an entrepreneur you can be a little bit more flamboyant and you say I’ll just go through this period and I’ll come out the other side. But it’s very different for family and they suffered a lot during this time. And I think it’s one of those things where you have dreams or aspirations and they all start crashing down and you start from the bottom all over again. I realised I had to do something different and this way of conducting business, of trying to make money out of just one deal or one transaction then move on to the next one, wasn’t really a sustainable business model. I needed something that I could build.
Gemma: Urban Clean has growing really successfully in Australia recently. I understand one of your big focuses now is really making sure you can empower the franchisees. How do you do that? How do you give them that support to turn it into an actual business?
Damien: It all comes down to training and systems and then also there’s that human element, there’s that people element where you’ve got to be invested personally in a franchisee’s success. So the model that we follow, we have what we call our regional partners which are our master franchises and they recruit franchises, train franchises, win them cleaning contracts and then show them how to grow the business. Then we have programs inside the business. Our recent program we call the winners inner circle, where those franchisees who put their hands up saying I want to have a big business, we work hands on with them.
So it’s a program where we’re actually showing them this is how to win a cleaning contract, this is how to staff it, this is how to get efficiencies and cleans and how to increase your profitability. It really comes down to having the right systems, having a method where you can win as many cleaning contracts as you want, a method then that you can get profitability out of commercial cleaning contracts, and then having programs to support and train franchisees who want to grow a business of that size.
Gemma: Sounds like a mini MBA for franchisees.
Damien: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, in the end business is all business. So it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, whether you’re selling clothes or you’re selling burgers. I think it does matter in terms of the business model that you follow. So some business models are harder than others but the business essentially is the same. You’ve got a customer, you service the customer and there’s profit or there’s no profit depending how you run the business. So when it came my turn to franchise, I thought I’m going to do things differently. I actually want to give people a real opportunity, where if they wanted a small business where they could get an additional income stream and earn $100 or $200,000, we could do that. If they wanted to build a significant sized business that was in seven figures, I wanted to give them the tools and resources and support to be able to do that, and I found out that was quite a radical thing to do in commercial cleaning.
Gemma: Damien, Urban Clean was started in 2010, so this is the 14th year of operation. How big has it grown now?
Damien: We have over 150 franchise partners now around Australia. When we started in 2010, well, I’m not sure we can say we, it was me. So it was me and a vacuum cleaner and that was it. So for the first few years, it wasn’t really doing much. In 2014, we franchised the business. So the first year, we recruited about six franchise partners, and now we’ve grown to where we are now. But for me, the most important thing is developing our franchisees, not so much the number. I always call it a vanity metric. You get over 100 franchises, that sounds great, but what are the people inside the business doing? What are they achieving? What results are they getting? I think that’s what matters most in a business. So our rule that we say to all of our franchisees is “win a client, keep them forever”. That’s the idea. You’re servicing them every single month and growing with their business or supporting them as they’re doing the things that they’re meant to be doing in their business.
Gemma: Let’s talk a little bit more about that. What’s your approach to getting and retaining your clients?
Damien: Well, because I didn’t come from a commercial cleaning background, I really didn’t know what service to offer other than cleaning. So I thought, why don’t I just ask my customers? So when I was growing my business, I eventually got it to a certain size where I could grade my customers. And I graded them A, B, C and D. The D customers, they had to go, but the A grade customers, they were customers that just were a pleasure to do business with. They were very profitable. I just wanted more of them. I thought, what better way of learning how to get more of them than just ask them what they wanted?
So I interviewed all of my A grade customers and they gave me this list. It turned out to be about six things that all businesses were looking for, or at least my A grade customers were looking for and price wasn’t on the list. That was a big revelation for me and that was the game changing moment for our businesses when we found out exactly what our customers were looking for. Then I went to work designing the service around those six core things that businesses were looking for and that’s when the business took off. Once the business took off and we started winning cleaning contracts after cleaning contracts, I had a problem of winning too much work. The way I was doing my marketing at that stage meant that a lot of my cleaning contracts were all over the place, and that’s how I got into franchising.
Gemma: So you rely very heavily on having a really talented workforce, but you also have a very unique app. From what I understand, it’s the first in the industry. Tell us about that.
Damien: Yes, when I interviewed my A grade customers and asked them exactly what they were looking for, a lot of them were saying, “I want to know when the cleaners come. I want to know what they do. I want to make sure that important items are getting picked up and identified. I want to make sure that my place is secure after you’ve left”. At the time, this was 2013, I thought “why don’t I just create an app so I could put it on a cleaner’s phone?”When they come in, the office managers are notified that the cleaning team has arrived. Anything that was important to them, we would take images, we could change these items on the app. Now there was a real time method of communication and full transparency around what’s happening at cleaning, because a lot of people were frustrated. They had no idea who’s turning up at night. They don’t know what’s going on with the cleans. They’re worried about security because there’s no way to know what the cleaners are doing when they show up and who they are.
So that app solved a lot of those problems. And we purposely kept it very simple and very streamlined, because it’s all about what the customer wants. I think a lot of people lose sight of customer needs and making it customer centric, and so we’ve always made sure that it’s delivering the outcomes that the customer wants.
Gemma: Damien, how formative was your background and upbringing in turning you into the kind of entrepreneur that you are today?
Damien: We moved out from Germany when I was a baby. My parents broke up pretty quickly and I was living with my mum and my sister. My mum went through a very difficult time, in fact, she had to leave us. My sister ended up living on the street at that time. I quit school but I didn’t want to end up where my sister was. I didn’t really know what happened to my sister because this was the 90’s, no one had mobile phones with no internet or anything like that. I just thought “I don’t want to end up in foster care”.
One of the things my stepdad did and it probably totally changed my life, was he said, “you can stay in the home, but what I want you to do is I want you to come up to my office”, he was a lecturer at Flinders University in South Australia and once a week he said “I want you to come up and I’m going to give you some books to read and I’m going to give you some work. So as long as you do this, I’ll look after the family. You can stay in this home.” He was paying the mortgage, he wasn’t living there, it was just me there.
So I did this and what I ended up doing is falling in love with learning and falling in love with books. I got myself into year eleven and twelve and sent myself to school, and no one knew any different when I was at school. Then I went to university and I ended up studying classics in Latin and Greek. People ask me like, Why are you in cleaning? I say “well, because I did a degree in Latin and Greek. There’s not a big job market for ancient Greek and Latin.”. That time taught me resilience. It doesn’t really matter what the circumstances are, how bad things are, things that can always get better and there’s always a silver lining on every single cloud, because I don’t see that as a bad time. A lot of people think that must have been terrible, but it was a real blessing in my life and I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for.
Gemma: Where to from here?
Damien: I’m a big believer that if you’ve got something good and it’s changing people’s lives, then you have a duty and obligation to share that with as many people as possible. So we’re opening up in the United States, we’re opening up in the UK. We had a soft launch last year in Las Vegas and we’re looking at bringing this model right across the world and also continuing to develop the franchise. There’s more programs, there’s always work to be done, so it never, never finishes. There’s always another level to go to from the business. What we were doing five years ago is very different from what we’re doing today.
Gemma: Certainly sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate. Damien, thank you so much for your time today and best of luck for the year ahead for Urban Clean.
Find out more about Urban Clean here: https://www.urbanclean.com.au